Enter the dragons: High-flying sculptures to create new gateway to International District

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A Chinese legend holds that when Buddha ascended into heaven, he invited all the animals in his kingdom to visit him. A dragon was among the 12 creatures that successfully made the journey.

The swirly beast is now recognized in Asian cultures as a symbol of tenacity, change and happiness.

A group of leaders in Seattle's Chinatown International District hopes 11 high-flying dragon sculptures to be installed at different street corners will work some of that charm on the neighborhood.

It took two years, a high-tech production-design firm, a couple of sculptors, a boatbuilder, a painter and a feng shui expert to finish the dragons, which range from 12 to 20 feet tall and weigh about 300 pounds each.

The vividly colored dragons mix a traditional theme with cutting-edge production techniques. The result is a one-of-a-kind series of sculptures that can be fixed to utility poles and seem to be spiraling in the air, said chief designer Martin Brunt.

To the viewer on the ground, the dragons appear to wind up and down the poles in wildly twisting shapes.

They look delicate, with their intricate paint work, iridescent fishlike scales and dramatic silhouettes, but Brunt said they were made to withstand winds up to 90 mph.

After months of delays, the colorful creatures are about ready to make their debut.

Plans are to hoist the red, green and yellow dragons onto street poles along Jackson and Dearborn streets as early as next week, said Pauline Zeestraten, executive director of the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area, the neighborhood group that commissioned the dragon sculptures.

The association is waiting on final city and Metro permits to clear the way.

When the flashy sculptures go up, Brunt said, they'll command attention: "This will be the wildest thing Seattle has seen in a long time."

Maintaining an identity

Some in the historically Asian-American neighborhood, which flanks Interstate 5 and includes Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian establishments, wonder how the area can maintain its identity in the shadow of Safeco Field, a new Seahawks stadium and new office complexes.

There have been differences of opinion on how to keep the neighborhood vital and distinctly Asian.

One of the business association's solutions was to create gateways into the district that would draw the attention of motorists and pedestrians, Zeestraten said.

The association has been instrumental in a project to paint the concrete poles underneath I-5 along Jackson red and yellow as a way to bridge the old and new Asian business areas of the district.

Tanya Fraioli, a board member with the nonprofit group, said she suggested the dragons after seeing spiral lamppost fixtures in downtown Kirkland.

The results, she said, "exceeded my expectations."

Will residents and visitors get the message?

"It will become clear that it marks a different neighborhood, an Asian neighborhood," said Zeestraten.

$100,000 project

To create the sculptures, the business association hired Brunt's design firm, Seattle Spiral, which was responsible for the banners Fraioli saw in Kirkland.

The dragon project cost about $100,000, so the association sought outside funding to cover expenses.

The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods chipped in $50,300, while the South Downtown Foundation gave $17,000. Contributions and sponsorships by individuals, including the Uwajimaya grocery and Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., made up the rest. Her group is looking for private sponsors to cover the cost of two dragons, Zeestraten said.

Why did the project take two years? It involved intensive experimentation, specially designed computer models and much collaboration. Brunt considers himself to be as much an inventor as a designer, so he won't say much about how his creations came to be.

"There were months when I didn't let anybody into the shop" to see what he was doing, said Brunt, who used three-dimensional computer software to design the dragons and specially mixed materials to form the underlying "skeletons."

For everybody involved, it will be a relief when all the required paperwork is ready so the public can see the dragons.

"We just have to let go, and whenever it's ready, it's ready," Zeestraten said.

Tyrone Beason: tbeason@seattletimes.com.

Horse around

The Year of the Horse Celebration — A Chinese Lunar New Year festival — will take place noon to 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Union Station Great Hall, 401 S. Jackson St. In addition to a lion dance, there will be traditional Filipino and Taiwanese performances, food and other cultural activities. Admission is free. 206-382-1197.